JANE FRYER mobbed by motorists during her day with a tanker driverOctober 1, 2021
Want to fuel your popularity? Join the new knights in hi-vis armour! JANE FRYER spent a day with a tanker driver — and was mobbed by grateful motorists
- Jane Fryer said she never felt more popular than driving into Cobham services
- She was driven by Richard Chambers, who has been a fuel driver for 21 years
- He said some drivers have been followed for miles by people desperate for fuel
It’s hard to recall when I’ve felt more popular than I do right now, driving very slowly and carefully – no sudden braking and absolutely no jerky movements – into Cobham services on the M25.
Some people wave. Others toot their horns. The cashier from the Shell station rushes out in greeting.
Cars edge in behind us, following in our wake. One poor woman, Sarah Leslie, 40 – desperately trying to get home from Gatwick Airport but thwarted by an empty tank – runs straight across the forecourt at the sight of us, weeping with joy.
‘I just want to get home to see my kids. My tank’s on zero. Please, please, please can you help me? I’m desperate!’
To be fair, it’s not really me everyone’s so thrilled about. Rather, my very shiny 40-ton ride – a vast Shell petrol tanker containing more than 27,000 litres of diesel, driven by a lovely chap called Richard Chambers who has kindly agreed to have me along for the day.
Jane Fryer spent a day with a tanker driver — and was mobbed by grateful motorists
Richard, 53, has been a fuel delivery driver for Hoyer Petrolog UK for 21 years and now takes HGV drivers through the surprisingly arduous training programme, but has never seen a week like this.
‘Some of us have been followed for miles by huge queues of cars, all desperate for fuel,’ he says.
‘People are filling up plastic water bottles and bin bags and all manner of ridiculous receptacles. Petrol is a highly volatile material! It’s astounding. Madness.’
But of course the biggest madness is that – as Richard and everyone at any fuel distribution company will tell anyone who will listen – there is actually NO shortage of fuel.
‘Last time it was toilet rolls,’ he says, referring to the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis. ‘They stripped the shelves and stockpiled it.’
And now we are experiencing a similar situation due to the crazed panic buying, hoarding, forecourt fights and petrol mania that has, at times, seen up to 60 per cent of filling stations across the country closed due to a lack of fuel.
‘What are they doing with it? Where are they going?’ he asks. ‘We drive all day, every day and there’s no one extra on the roads. Yet we can’t deliver any more. We’re all working flat out.’
And he’s not joking.
Long queues for petrol at an Asda in Bristol this morning as the fuel supply crisis continued
At the vast Hoyer depot in Grays, Essex, that serves Shell, BP and Esso garages all over the country, as well as airports, the working day starts at 4am. Shifts average 12 hours – but are often far longer – and ‘we go home when we’re finished’.
It goes without saying they’re horribly short-staffed, everyone has been offered overtime and, when drivers turn up at petrol stations, they often can’t get anywhere near the vast underground tanks due to all the horrendously long queues.
To add insult to injury, Richard’s own car – a very smart green Jag parked outside the Hoyer Portakabin – is dangerously low on fuel.
‘If I can’t get some this weekend, I won’t be able to get to work on Monday.’ But despite all that, he couldn’t be perkier. ‘I LOVE my job. Just love it! My alarm goes off at 2.30am and I jump straight out of bed – if I didn’t my dear wife would kill me – into the shower, dressed and out,’ he says.
He arrives at the office at 3.30am, whips through his paperwork, enjoys some very lively banter with fellow drivers, carries out the 130-odd safety checks on his lorry and then sets off – first to the refinery and then zigzagging across the country. Due to safety concerns, no phones of any kind are allowed in the cab, so it’s Radio 2 – ‘Ken Bruce’s PopMaster is the law’ – and his own company.
‘It’s a very solitary job – 80 per cent of the time alone,’ he says.
Which is perhaps why the last week has seemed so bizarre.
‘Every single garage I’ve gone to – particularly those totally bereft of fuel – I’ve had people clapping, cheering, tooting their horns,’ he beams. It’s a while since I’ve met a man more content – joyous, even – with his lot.
Just trundling around the M25 on a grey day, he’s exuberant.
‘This is not a bad way of earning a living. Just look – what a beautiful view!’ he cries as we perch high in our cab above the slow lane, never breaching the permitted top speed of 56mph.
‘It’s a vocation, not a job. It’s part of my life, part of who I am.’
Jane on board the vast Shell petrol tanker containing more than 27,000 litres of diesel, driven by Richard Chambers (left), 53, who has been a fuel delivery driver for Hoyer Petrolog UK for 21 years
If anyone could recruit new drivers, it’s Richard. Maybe they should put him in charge of the emergency national recruitment drive which, as he explains, is years overdue.
‘This hasn’t snuck up on the Government. They should have been plugging this gap,’ he says. ‘But the driving industry hasn’t been looked after for years’.
Obviously, Brexit didn’t help – Richard reckons he lost about 25 per cent of his colleagues back to Poland. Nor did the pandemic or the dearth of women drivers. ‘We’d love some women drivers – we’ve had them before, but the hours… it’s hard [for those with families]. Perhaps you can encourage them,’ he says.
The decline in general HGV drivers has had a knock-on effect, too. Not that they’re on the same level as fuel drivers.
It takes between three and six months to get an HGV licence, but then there are myriad more hoops – and exams – to navigate before you can deliver fuel.
‘I’m not going to say there’s a hierarchy,’ says Richard. ‘But I can’t see how the army will be able to help with fuel deliveries. If you don’t have a Petroleum Driver Passport you can’t load the vehicle.’
It’s a shame they’re so short-staffed because they clearly have a good time – there are golf, snooker and motorbiking clubs for drivers and, as Richard is quick to say, the pay and perks are great.
Vehicles queue to refill at a petrol station in London this morning amid the supply crisis
Quite right, too. Because, naturally, delivering highly flammable fuel brings potential hazards.
‘The risk, the danger, the potential for calamity! Our biggest worries are fires and spillages. That’s why it’s all safety, safety, safety, safety,’ he exclaims, before taking me through endless warning signs of flames and scary skulls in the safety briefing before letting me even set foot in his immaculate air-freshened cab.
Driving long shifts can also be tough on drivers’ relationships – not every partner is as adept at sleeping through the alarm as Richard’s wife Lynn.
And neither is it kind on waistlines. Particularly during the pandemic and recently, where grateful petrol station managers – and members of the public – have showered drivers with muffins, cakes and boxes of chocolates.
But right now, the best bit by far is the welcome. The clamours of joy. The tears of relief and frustration. The urgent shouts of ‘Is it diesel or unleaded?’ and ‘Tell me it’s petrol!’
No exaggeration, I have never felt more wanted than right now – in my navy and yellow antistatic flame retardant Hoyer outfit, thick boots and shiny helmet with integrated visor.
Indeed, when we finally make it to the loading area of Europe’s biggest Shell station and unscrew hoses the width of my thigh to fill up the 67,000-litre tanks at a rate of 1,000 litres a minute, it’s as if we’re the fourth emergency service.
‘I just wish I could help them all. I really do,’ sighs Richard over the roar of traffic and diesel. ‘But at least we can help some.’
And with that, he’s off. Packing up, driving back to the refinery to load up and head out all over again – at never more than 56mph, but always buoyant. A knight in hi-viz armour doing battle with forecourt hysteria.
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